'Facial ID' locks out impostors

June 01, 1998|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

I STARED AT THE tiny TV camera mounted over the monitor and nodded from side to side while a green circle wandered over the image of my face on the screen. Less than 30 seconds later, the circle disappeared, the computer beeped and it was all over.

I had been scanned.

My face had been recorded in a database on a PC's hard drive. Henceforth, whenever I sat down in front of the screen, the computer would chirp, "I recognize Mike." Every time my colleague Steve sat down, the computer said, "I recognize Steve."

And every time Joseph Atick sat down, it said, "I recognize Joseph."

It should. Atick is president of Visionics Corp., a 4-year-old New Jersey company that shrink-wraps the cutting edge of biometric technology and puts it on your desktop for 100 bucks.

Hooked to a video camera pointed at your chair, the company's FaceIt software can keep somebody who's not you from using your computer, or use your face to encrypt your files so that only you can read them. FaceIt software is also at the heart of a government system that scans drivers at the Mexican border near San Diego, and another that checks passengers boarding airliners in Malaysia. In a year or so, it might ensure that no one else can get a driver's license in your name.

Visionics is riding a boom in biometrics - the use of hardware and software to identify people by their fingerprints, retinal patterns, voices or even faces. This is what you used to see in spy movies, but it's real today. Behind the gee-whiz stuff is some outstanding science based on the slightly scary premise that almost everything in nature can be explained mathematically.

The people who do this kind of work live where the air is rare. Atick, an enthusiastic, engaging 34-year-old scientist turned entrepreneur, is a prodigy who earned a doctorate from Stanford at 22 and began his career as a mathematical physicist working on something called "string theory." Understood by only a handful of people, string theory is an attempt to unify particle PTC physics, gravity and just about everything else in the universe. Suffice it to say that no one has done it yet.

"We were working on something that was totally arrogant, although we were probably right to try to do it at the time," Atick says with a grin. "So what did we move on to? Something equally arrogant, trying to understand the human mind."

With a group of like-minded scientists at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, N.J., and later at Rockefeller University in New York, Atick began studying how we recognize objects and trying to figure out how to duplicate the process with computers.

By 1993, the researchers were concentrating on face recognition - not only an intriguing intellectual problem but one that turned out to have a potential for profit in a business climate increasingly worried about security.

The scientists sent teams of high school students into the streets of New York to videotape faces in the crowds at subway stops until their database reached 40,000 mug shots. "The good thing about New York was that we had every nationality and race available," Atick says.

Eventually, they determined that complex objects such as faces are made up of simpler building blocks that can be mathematically described - a sort of jigsaw puzzle in reverse. They concentrated in particular on the "golden triangle" between the temples and the bottom of the nose - areas that don't change much over time (mathematically) and aren't covered by hair, beard or moustache.

The scientists developed software that analyzes a video image of a human face and turns it into a unique formula that can be stored in a few hundred bytes on a hard drive. And thanks to powerful Pentium processors, the computations that once required a $20,000 graphics workstation could be handled on the desktop.

That's why the PC recognized me instantly once I had been "enrolled" in its database. I was a sure match. This is the part that banks, securities trading firms and other businesses and agencies like. You can steal a computer password or a teller-machine card, but you can't steal a face.

On the other hand, the same system can scan a face surreptitiously and match it against a database of known something-or-others (drug runners, spies, terrorists, hijackers, deadbeat dads, parking scofflaws, whatever).

Police, intelligence agencies and customs officials think this is the greatest thing since the fingerprint, because you can't hide from a camera that you don't know about. But it gives some folks (including me) the heebie-jeebies. It means anybody with your face on file can theoretically track you anywhere you fall in range of a TV camera, including every convenience store in the country.

Atick, who formed Visionics in 1994 with two research colleagues, sees computers becoming even more prescient. Linked with voice-recognition technology, he says, FaceIt might eventually be able to read your gestures and tone, and determine your emotional state.

"Why shouldn't my computer tell me a joke if I'm feeling bad?" Atick asks

He's serious.

Pub Date: 6/01/98

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